Get Your People AI Ready: 3 Key Ideas
Want to make sure your company is making the most of the generative AI moment? Then you better make sure you’re bringing your people along—and be deliberate about it.

Editor’s Note: Following our popular AI Academy series of AI leadership training sessions last year, Chief Executive and Corporate Board Member will be offering additional workshops in 2024 aimed at helping you and your organizations get much savvier and strategic about generative AI. April 24 we’ll offer our Microsoft Copilot Workshop, helping you dive into the new tech with confidence and June 13 we have AI Unleashed, a special program designed specifically for board members. We hope you can join us!

If you need yet another signal that AI is shaping up as the business/management imperative/challenge of the year, or maybe even of our generation, here’s one: At our recent Directors Forum in Dallas Florin Rotar, Chief AI Officer, Avanade and Tariq Shaukat, board member, Public Storage and Gap Inc., Co-CEO, Sonar and a former Google Cloud executive, were getting ready to present to a room full of public company directors from nearly every industry and geography. They had a whole lineup of questions and conversation starters they’d pose to the audience to help them think more deeply about AI in their companies.

They never even got the chance to start.

As soon as they were introduced it was like a starter’s pistol went off for questions. What followed for the two of them—both longtime experts on the development and deploying of digital technology in organizations—was an intense hour-long Q&A that could have gone on for three.

Neither was shy about their predictions for where generative AI might be headed (we’ve barely started and it could solve some of humanity’s most intractable challenges) and what it’s impact might be on business in the years—maybe months—to come (creating the-harnessing-of-electricity-level types of change, perhaps even more). But both stressed that to take the best advantage—and perhaps use generative AI well at all—was becoming more of a people issue, not a technology issue. And fast.

Shaukat emphasized that all of this change will cause societal disruptions, with many jobs changing beyond recognition—or disappearing entirely. “I don’t think our political environment has figured out what you do when you have mass layoffs of accountants and marketing executives,” said Shaukat. “And I think that this will not come in the next two years, it may come in the next five, and I think it’s going to be something that we have to get very proactive about.”

But the most essential learnings for company leaders had to do with preparing the workforce for the fast arriving future. Three key to-dos for board members and management teams:

Develop critical thinking as the critical skill.

In an era where it will become increasingly difficult to tell what’s real from what’s not, discernment will become essential—the ability to have enough broad knowledge and common sense to look at what the AI is saying or creating and know if it’s real—or B.S. at scale.

“The way that technology works, it will always hallucinate,” said Shaukat. “This is a critical problem. Because you can see in all sorts of places rolling out generative AI tools and having people say, well, the computer said it, therefore it must be right. And they are not going think about it.”

Because of that, Shaukat said he thought it “entirely possible” that a traditional liberal arts education will be much more valuable in the years to come and that the role of generalists will be much valued than it has been for decades.

“We went through an era for the last 50, 60, 70 years, in which we deeply valued specialized knowledge and we deeply valued basically engineering and scientific knowledge,” he said. “The critical thinking that I think people need right now is what you would’ve gotten reading literature, reading philosophy, things like that. Just understanding does an argument hold together? What’s the counterpoint? Because those are the types of questions we’re going to need to ask of everything that we see.”

Train your people now.

Inside of 65,000-thousand-employee Avanade, Rotar has been laying out a series of generative AI training programs that are open for anyone in the company. The goal isn’t to make anyone an expert, but to simply help them get hands on with the systems, tackle problems “and least have an idea of how to redefine or reimagine their jobs” and their roles on a task level. “We decided not to make it mandatory. We decided not to push it the same way as compliance training, but just encourage people to take it.”

The uptake has been stunning, he said. “We have seven, over 70 percent of 65,000 people who took the training within the first three weeks,” he said. “I’ve never, ever in my career had such a strong reaction on anything I’ve ever done. There are literally thousands or thousands of people who are completely unsolicited said, thank you emails saying, this is the best thing we’ve ever done in 20 years. Thank you so much for doing this. Thank you for investing in me.”

Too many management teams and executive teams Rotar has been working with obsess over trying to get generative AI to be a hundred percent accurate. “I don’t think it can be,” he said, “and it’s a law of diminishing results when you should, in actual fact focus on training the people, [to] be a lot more critical thinkers and to keep them awake during the process.”

How to do it? With some of the same tactics that you use around cybersecurity training and phishing emails, said Rotar. “Once in a while, test that people are awake. And if you’re not awake, you actually get a bit of a slap, a constructive slap. You’ve got to retake the training, you’ve got to re-earn your certificate or your rights to use your privileges.”

Get your leadership thinking about responsible AI.

What does that mean? Different things to different people, including industry leaders like Elon Musk and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. But, broadly, they said it began with insuring that AI initiatives align with the company’s core values and ethical standards. Promoting a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. Engaging in strategic planning to leverage AI for competitive advantage, while also mitigating risks. And making sure everyone on the board and in leadership has more than cursory knowledge of the technology, its uses and its risks—and can enunciate those risks to help manage them.

“I think this topic, because it is so pervasive, it’ll cut through everything,” said Shaukat. “You really need to join these conversations. Two companies may make different decisions. And that’s probably okay.”

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